Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

The Next Station is Valhalla

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I was on a Harlem Line train out of Grand Central heading home from meetings in New York City when the conductor made an announcement that broke me out of my contemplative mood. “The next station is Valhalla” crackled over the loudspeaker.

The word Valhalla, meaning Hall of the Slain, is from Norse/Viking mythology and is the place where those who die fighting in battle reside and help Odin, the chief Norse god fight the good fight against his enemies. According to this ancient mythology those who don’t make it to Valhalla end up in the Norse underworld called Hel.  Dying in battle under the Viking belief system provides a reward; you were able to enter into a blissful state, having the opportunity to fight alongside Odin.

This reward system also reinforced the fighting spirit of the living Viking warriors, for if you did not perform well in battle, living according to Viking standards and supporting your chief, your next station stop was not Valhalla but rather the punishment of Hel. (I have yet to find the town of Hel on the Harlem Line, but sometimes when I am stuck in traffic on the Van Wyke expressway I think I have seen the exit for Hel).  Punishments and eventual rewards for proper behavior is one of the oldest stories going and a very common theme not only of Norse mythology but exists in virtually every culture on the planet.

It is such a common theme that the underlying concept of reward and punishment and more specifically the promise of future rewards for certain current behavior or the promise of future reward to make up for current deprivation, hardship and sacrifice has to meet a basic human need, playing off of a psychology or physiology common to us all, and certainly has been used to the advantage of governments, rulers, despots, and religions to control the masses and reserve power to the few. Promises of a brighter future, or future rewards are to be yours but only if you behave accordingly now. That promise works so well and is so powerful that there has to be an underlying mechanism at work. The Wall Street Journal (November 9, 2007) reports “a rose colored view of the future is the dominant hue, regardless of culture or nationality. This sense of hope boosts consumer confidence, creates market bubbles and spurs irrational exuberance”. The newspaper reports that a research team at New York University has found an area in the brain that seems to have as its role the creation of optimism about the future. And I would add that this sense of hope about the future also allows for delayed gratification when conditions of hardship are present.  At least some of us (the article said the findings did not hold up for lawyers) seem to be hardwired for optimism, as it has likely value as a survival mechanism.

I have to wonder if this built-in sense of optimism makes it more difficult for us to collectively deal with pressing issues such as global warming, the slaughter in Darfur, or Iran’s nuclear weapons penchant as we may be predisposed towards hoping that they will be resolved favorably on their own. On the other hand this built in optimism could also be responsible for the mess in Iraq, with the planners assuming that the US troops would be greeted as liberators, having flower petals strewn in front of them as they paraded down the streets, or that if given a chance the populace would automatically embrace democracy.

In addition to being a heavenly location for the Vikings, Valhalla is also a suburb of New York City. In 1885 the Kensico dam was built across the Bronx River to create the Kensico reservoir in order to provide additional drinking water for New York City. One unfortunate outcome of the creation of the reservoir was the flooding of the town of Kensico, which now lies under the reservoir’s waters. In dryer periods when the water level is lower, an old church steeple and a few roof tops rise eerily out of the water, as a reminder of what was. Well anyway, a new post office needed to be built since the old one was flooded and the postmaster’s wife was a fan of Norse mythology and hence the name Valhalla was chosen for the post office. Over the years a new town grew up around the Valhalla post office and the train came through. In 1889 with New York City running out of cemetery space the 600 acre Kensico Cemetery was founded in Valhalla and with time additional cemeteries moved into town, presumable attracted somewhat by the name. Today as you ride the train you pass for a few miles what seems like the endless cemeteries of Valhalla. There are many famous people (e.g. Billie Burke – Glinda the Good Witch of the North, Tommy Dorsey, Danny Kay, Lou Gehrig, Rachmaninoff,) buried there and my less famous but no less important father is buried there as well.

Rewards and punishments and the basic human reactions to them, how they are used to motivate and to control have traveled with us from pre-Norse times up through modern times and are present in all of our organizations.

Most fundamentally our entire social structure is founded on the principle that if you work or invest you are rewarded with cash that enables you to purchase other goods and services. If your work is viewed as extremely valuable, or if you possess very specialized skills you are generally paid more for your work. People who do not work or contribute in some way to our society are scoffed at and looked down upon. While people today are enjoying retirement more, it was not too long ago that the statement “you work your whole life and then you die” was not too far from the truth for many. In the Norse mythology, you fight your whole life, getting to kill people and then if you fight well after you die you get to fight and kill some more – ah heaven.

Our organizations today reward people by paying them for their contributions, giving merit increases to those who contribute more, promotions, recognition and praise flow to those most deserving or if you hold cynical pessimistic views, sometimes to those best able to work the system. Performance appraisal is used to provide a grading system so as to know who should get what level of reward and provides the mostly unstated threat that if you don’t measure up punishment will follow (possibly being sacrificed to one of the Norse gods).

Delayed gratification for some workers (i.e. public servants) can be defined as a willingness to put up with lower salaries or poorer or dangerous working conditions in order to obtain an afterlife – retirement benefits. Namely, lifetime healthcare, retirement eligibility after periods as short as 20 years and a defined benefit retirement plan that guaranteed a steady retirement income. These benefits have all but disappeared from the private sector corporate world.

I wonder if workers are becoming more unwilling to live a life of current deprivation, hardship or of delayed rewards when those after work-life retirement rewards are no longer to be had. (One study mentioned on NPR had new college graduates expecting their first promotion after about a year on the job. Delayed gratification is no longer part of their vocabulary.) Has this been part of the changes that have eroded the traditional notions of employee loyalty to the organization? Have the equity equations gone out of kilter?  The lay press and others often describe generational differences in what people want out of the work environment, arguments that I view as fundamentally flawed. I would argue that any differences seen in how people of differing ages respond to surveys or in their job expectations are driven by differing economic circumstances that people live with – the current hardship or beneficent circumstances in which they find themselves – the equity equations. People I believe are fundamentally driven by universal drives and if placed in similar economic situations will make similar choices regarding work related decisions. When someone is seen as benefiting but not contributing their fair share, a universal feeling emerges among the other workers.

For instance, it is a very common survey finding to have employees indicate that they feel that management is don’t doing enough to deal with poor performers, and while modern workers may stop short of recommending ritual slaughter, they generally react positively when action is finally taken against the most egregious performers.

An interesting aside here is the origin of the words “you’re fired” – and no, it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. John Henry Patterson bought the National Manufacturing Company in Dayton, Ohio in the 1870s, changing its name to National Cash Register (NCR). He is often thought of as the father of modern sales techniques creating methods such as quotas, territories, sales meetings, role play, and company songs. Apparently many strange stories abound about Mr. Patterson including a weakness he had for letting executives go. From NCR’s own historical information “In the period 1910-1930 an estimated one-sixth of the top executives in the nation were former NCR executives.” In order to make sure an executive knew when he was let go, the story goes Mr. Patterson had the executive’s office furniture placed in front of the building where it was set on fire, and hence the term “you’re fired” came into being.

Given that people are people and respond very similarly and somewhat predictably to the circumstances in which they find themselves, our organizations get exactly what they deserve when they treat people either inappropriately or appropriately. And while our various institutions and leaders have evolved techniques over time to take maximal advantage of our humanness, sometimes for no ones benefit other then their own, holding forth promises of future rewards or current punishment, when certain fundamental lines are crossed we do seem able to snap out of it and demand that the equity or fairness equations be restored.

Just a few stops past Valhalla is my own stop, Pleasantville. Hmmm…now that is a nice name. I wonder where it came from.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 6:03 am

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog.

    Jeffrey M. Saltzman

    April 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm


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